Come and Take It

"You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas."

How We Fall Apart

Image of the Bancroft Hall rotunda

The rotunda of Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy

As Americans we take pride in the fact that for nearly 224 years we have governed ourselves through that singular instrument, the Constitution of the United States. Such is the strength of our civic institutions that in all our history we have never suffered a military coup, not even through the tumult of Civil War. While we should take pride in this accomplishment, we should also beware of the false sense of security that accompanies it. We tell ourselves that because it’s never happened here, it can’t happen here. That’s a perilous way of thinking.

Our seeming immunity to the ignominy of the military coup is not accidental. Two members of my immediate family are graduates of the United States Naval Academy (USNA), so I am at least peripherally aware of the efforts our military academies undertake to imbue young officers with a deep sense of respect for: a) the limits to, and proper use of, military power, b) the appropriate code of conduct for a military officer, c) our civic institutions, and d) above all, civil authority over our military. Indeed, at USNA all midshipmen are exposed to a rigorous curriculum designed specifically to inculcate these values.

Underlying all the explicit instruction is a solid foundation of longstanding tradition. Should your travels ever take you to Annapolis, I heartily encourage you to visit the Naval Academy grounds, and especially Bancroft Hall. Bancroft is a peculiar combination of dormitory and museum. The rotunda and adjoining Memorial Hall are quite beautiful. The Memorial Hall is, by intent, both solemn and awe inspiring. In it you will find inscribed the names of all Naval Academy graduates (men, and now, women) who have been killed in action. In various alcoves around the hall you find the stories of some of these fine officers described in intimate (and often harrowing) detail. The psychological purpose of the hall is obvious. In extremis, it’s both helpful and encouraging for young officers to know that those who have gone before them somehow mustered the fortitude to conduct themselves with courage and honor, even to the point of death. Honor and tradition are bulwarks against the soul crushing fear that can accompany combat.

Just as our military institutions uphold and glorify the memory of heroic conduct, they also remember and revile those who have betrayed those values. “Hanoi Jane” Fonda was a controversial figure during my childhood; her anti-Vietnam War activities verged on treason in the opinion of many members of the military. Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that during my son’s plebe year, the standard salute at lights out remained, “Good night, Jane Fonda!” To which the proper reply is a resounding, “Good night, you communist [expletive]!” The lesson here is simple: To a much greater extent than in the civilian world, our military neither forgives nor forgets.

With all these safeguards of instruction and tradition, it seems reasonable to assume nothing could go wrong. I submit this is a wrong assumption, and the first clue to just how wrong may be found in the oath of office sworn by all military officers on commissioning:

“I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” (emphasis added)

The observant reader will note that (unlike the oath sworn by enlisted men and women) officers swear no oath to follow orders, lawful or otherwise. Nor is there any swearing of allegiance to the Commander in Chief. The oath is to the Constitution. On this inauguration day, ask yourself: What might happen were we to, for instance, elect a president disdainful of the Constitution, a populist demagogue who traduced the Rule of Law at every turn, who abrogated any notion of the separation of powers, and who trampled the Bill of Rights at every opportunity? Given their training, traditions, and oath, how might our military officers react to such a person? What could possibly happen?

Actually, we need not ask rhetorically; we can look to the example of history. In the decades prior to the disintegration of the Roman Republic two main political factions held sway; these were the optimates and the poplares. The optimates were what we would now refer to as conservatives; the poplares were, as the name suggests, populists. In 88 BC the optimates and poplares were led by Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius, respectively. Both men were distinguished military generals, both served as consuls of Rome. (Although Marius was certainly a member of the one percent, he had amassed his political power by establishing the novel policy of allowing non-landowners to serve in the Roman legions. When it came to raw populism, Marius makes Obama look like a piker.)

An inevitable consequence of the vicious political maneuvering between the optimates and poplares was a gradual breakdown of the rule of law and separation of powers. Political favoritism became the currency of power. (Sound familiar?) Frightened and appalled by the populist usurpations of Marius via his control of the plebeian council, which culminated in Sulla’s removal from command of the eastern legions, Sulla snapped. In 87 BC Sulla entered Rome in force at the head of six legions, an action which was, to abuse an overused Washington trope, unprecedented.

In his conflicts with Marius and the poplares Sulla invaded Rome not once, but twice. (In the interim Marius invaded Rome and purged optimates with unmitigated savagery.) On the second occasion Sulla had himself declared dictator (something that hadn’t happened since the darkest days of the Punic Wars some 150 years earlier). Sulla rooted out the poplares with great (and somewhat bloody) vigor and instituted a series of constitutional reforms designed to prevent further populist agitation. In 81 BC (following the death by suicide of Marius the Younger upon defeat by Sulla’s forces) Sulla did the honorable thing and retired. But the damage was done, precedent established, the Republic fatally wounded. Sulla, the champion of tradition and conservative values, had set the terrible example. It was only a matter of time before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon once and for all.

Just remember, friend, it can happen here.

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7 thoughts on “How We Fall Apart

  1. Tuttabella on said:

    tthor: I think we as a nation have remained so strong because of the importance we place on the Constitution. It is front and center, constantly quoted, memorized, a part of our national consciousness, unlike in other countries, where it is just a formality, issued mainly because “every nation has one” and then it is promptly set aside. Here in the U.S. our Constitution actually means something and is taken deathly seriously. It is not easily amended, and it is not disposable as in so many other counties, with its new constitutions every few years.

    We must never let our Constitution be “disposed” of , be allowed to fade into the background, or be allowed to get lost in a bureaucracy of laws and regulations.

    • captsternn on said:

      Tutt, you are right about our constitution being central to our nation. But even it is being slowly whittled away, starting several decades ago. Things that once took amendments to do are now just done, no change in the constitution to allow it. The courts have been rewriting the constitution, bypassing the amendment process, with the stated intent of allowing the federal government to do things it was never intended to have the power to do.

      Our liberty and rights must always be guarded, ever vigilant. Things we thought could not happen here, do happen here. Whether that be in a local community, a state or the nation as a whole. Thankfully we do have a lot of people that guard against the slow encroachment of an overbearing, all powerful central government. But that generation is slowly on the way out, and I am not so sure about the future generations.

      • Tuttabella on said:

        Cap, thankfully we have the Tea Party to keep us all focused on the rightful role of the Constitution, to remind us of how things should be, to keep things in perspective. I hope the Tea Party movement or some other variation of it is always around to keep further encroachment in check.

    • Tutt, I believe both you and Cap have valid points. I suspect the abuses Cap describe have been going on since Day 1, and are nothing new. For instance, FDR’s anti-constitutional antics were every bit as egregious as Obama’s, if not more so.

      With respect to your comment, it’s worth noting the Constitution is only important to some of us. Progressives are interested only in *progress* (however that might be defined at any given moment), and view the Constitution as nothing more than an inconvenient impediment to their desires. You see this attitude expressed in Obama’s every action.

      My main point is that our governing institutions, while resilient, are not unbreakable. The tragedy of the Roman Republic is that the very individuals who were most devoted to the traditional values of that republic were the first to resort to violence in defense of the same, thus sowing the seeds of their own destruction. I could easily envision the same thing happening to us.

      • Tuttabella on said:

        My point is that if we stray too far from the Constitution, we risk the destruction of our nation. It’s our Constitution that is our strength.

      • captsternn on said:

        Always heard that this nation won’t be undone from outside forces, it will be brought down from inside. I remember when senate republicans were getting frustrated by democrats filibustering and threatened the nuclear option. I said then that it could go against them someday because they won;t always have a majority. Another example, from FDR’s time, is the abuse and misuse of the commerce clause, now used to apply to almost everything congress wants to do. More recently, taxing us for not participating in commerce, Obamacare.

        Now Obama has been trying to rule by decree, as if he were a dictator and congress could be bypassed. He does it quietly most of the time, and occasionally rescinds the order when it is made public. But that is setting a precident, and it could easily grow and be used by somebody else in a different manner in the future. Think of Chavez in Venenzuela.

        We do have people that are finally starting to pay attention, like the tea party movement. But is it enough? We made progress in 2010, but barely held the status quo in 2012. Maybe we will have to settle for working on mid term elections, if the movement doesn’t run out of steam.

  2. Tuttabella on said:

    Sorry for my misspelling of “countries” as “counties.”

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